Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott review

Hi everyone! For the last couple of years I have been really getting into Truman Capote’s writing after thinking, strangely, that he was too ‘highbrow’ for me to comprehend. Breakfast at Tiffany’s proved me wrong and I have been fascinated by the author ever since. So when I read that a period of Capote’s life was the basis for a novel I had to have it. Swan Song flits between different moments of his life but centres on one key incident; in 1975 Capote published a chapter of his forthcoming book Answered Prayers based on the lives of some of his closest friends, a group of socialites he collectively calls his ‘Swans’. Betrayed, his friends start to shun him and the author’s life starts to crumble.

Greenberg-Jephcott’s characterisation is stunning. The different women, the ‘Swans’, in Capote’s life all have distinct and compelling voices and I found the descriptions of their lives fascinating. As a reader you really get a sense of their personalities and how this betrayal has affected each of them. But the highlight is Capote himself. He is such a complex, loathsome, pathetic man who by turns you despise and feel sorry for. There is a feeling of repugnance for how he treated his friends yet watching him self-destruct is heart-breaking; one doesn’t feel joy at watching his downfall but rather has a sad sense of inevitability. Greenberg-Jephcott has managed to make Capote a fully fledged character, rather than a caricature of the great writer. He was a joy to read.

Her writing too is excellent. It is very lyrical in parts and the imagery is particularly evocative. It feels like you are there with these characters, whether in the posh restaurants in New York or sitting on a porch in Monroeville. There is a real sense of place, and I think New York and Monroeville are minor characters in their own right. They both reflect an aspect of Capote and his personality and ambitions; New York the glitzy, famous, aspect and Monroeville his poor, haphazard childhood that he wanted to escape (and sort of did through stories). It is interesting to see in the end how these two places affect him, and I think Greenberg-Jephcott did a great job reflecting that.

Ultimately, Swan Song is a story about storytelling. The story is told in first-narration plural by the Swans themselves. Greenberg-Jephcott has given their voices back to them after their stories were robbed by Capote. It is their narration, their version of events (though one could argue that in a sense since none wrote the book, it isn’t truly ‘theirs’). Throughout the book the reader also sees different variations of the same event. Most of these variations are down to Capote; whether making his own childhood more exciting or recounting others’ personal dramas. This technique highlights the idea that we all tell stories, that we have our own narratives and versions of events, and we tell them to ourselves or others for many reasons.

It is hard to imagine that Swan Song is a debut as it is very well-written. The characterisation is probably the highlight for me as I thought each person was beautifully drawn, but the word choice and imagery are equally great. I also really enjoy the title; managing to reference both the Swans and Capote. Admittedly at the beginning I wasn’t sure, getting confused with the timeline constantly switching but by a couple of chapters I was hooked. Even if you know next to nothing about anyone mentioned in the book I would still recommend Swan Song, a novel I think even Capote himself would have relished.

Swan Song is published by Hutchinson and you can find more information here.

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